Sunday, July 17, 2005

The rationality of irrational Chinese sabre-rattling 

As everybody has already heard, three days ago Chinese General Zhu Chenghu declared China's readiness to attack American targets with nuclear weapons if the United States intervened in a war over Taiwan.
“If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China's territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons,” said General Zhu Chenghu.

Gen Zhu was speaking at a function for foreign journalists organised, in part, by the Chinese government. He added that China's definition of its territory included warships and aircraft.

“We . . . will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds . . . of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

Zhu had clearly left the reservation -- China has had a "no first use" doctrine for forty years -- and the Chinese scrambled to back away.

There are at least two points that might be made about this incident. First, there is a long tradition of nuclear bluster -- Thomas Schelling called it "national impulsiveness" -- among even fundamentally conservative great powers. Second, a little impulsiveness on the order of General Zhu's eruption can improve both deterrance and stability. This phenomenon has long been known as the "rationality of irrationality."

In his 1965 classic Arms and Influence, Schelling recounts the nutty stuff that Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy used to spew at each other:
A vivid exhibition of national impulsiveness at the highest level of government was described by Averell Harriman in his account of a meeting with Khrushchev in 1959. "Your generals," said Khrushchev, "talk of maintaining your position in Berlin with force. That is a bluff." With what Harriman describes as angry emphasis, Khrushchev went on, "If you send in tanks, they will burn and make no mistake about it. If you want war, you can have it, but remember it will be your war. Our rockets will fly automatically." At this point, according to Harriman, Khrushchev's colleagues around the table chorused the word "automatically." The title of Harriman's article in Life magazine was, "My Alarming Interview with Khrushchev." The premier's later desk-thumping with a shoe in the hall of the General Assembly was pictorial evidence that high-ranking Russians know how to put on a performance.

Kennedy, of course, could also put on a show:
[W]hen President Kennedy took his turn at it people were impressed, possibly even people in the Kremlin. President Kennedy chose a most impressive occasion for his declaration on "automaticity." It was his address of October 22, 1962, launching the Cuban crisis. In an unusually deliberate and solemn statement he said, "Third: it shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." Coming less than six months after Secretary McNamara's official elucidation of the strategy of controlled and flexible response, the reaction implied in the President's statement would have been not only irrational but probably -- depending on just what "full retaliatory response" meant to the President or to the Russians -- inconsistent with one of the foundations of the President's own military policy, a foundation that was laid as early as his first defense budget message of 1961, which stressed the importance of proportioning the response to the provocation, even in war itself. Nevertheless, it was not entirely incredible; and, for all I know, the President meant it.

And, of course, who has forgotten that momentous day -- August 11, 1984 -- when President Reagan "outlawed Russia forever" in perhaps the most strategically consequential open mike gaff in history (listen here -- it was a beautiful moment).

Whether calculated or not, each of these outbursts, and General Zhu's on Wednesday, served to brush back the other side. How could Khrushchev be sure that the United States wouldn't retaliate against the Motherland? How can the United States not be at least a little concerned that General Zhu vocalized something more than his own personal opinion?

The question, of course, is whether these eruptions are destabilizing, or stabilizing. On the one hand, they suggest that the other side has an irrational streak. If a country is perceived as too irrational, it won't be deterrable and that can push its enemies to war. On the other hand, we are perhaps less likely to rush to the edge of the brink in a standoff if we think there is a chance that the other side will not pull back. If that is true, then a little bit of craziness can make the world more careful, and less dangerous.


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